After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”
He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.John 21:1-14
This past week I began reorganizing my closets. It happens once every five years, or when I move…. I guess it was out of the hope of the arrival of an early springtime, or getting a little stir-crazy in this shelter-in-place mode. And I made a notable discovery.
In a suit jacket that I was rearranging I found in the inner pocket a wedding program from some years past… (I won’t say whose wedding it was- but you may well be listening now — and what a wonderful event it was!) And with that remembrance it gave me a little insight on this passage from John’s Gospel. That token piece of paper took me back to a happier time, when we worshipped together, sang together, celebrated together, even laughed and hugged together (even though I’m not that much of a hugger.)
Our scripture passage for this morning has to do with a flashback event, eventually hearkening back to happier days and leading to even more, but that’s not how the story begins.
On the heels of last week’s account of Thomas and his hesitancy to believe, we have this story of Peter in another scene from just after Jesus’ resurrection.
Like Thomas, Peter is another character in the Gospels who is often misinterpreted. Peter is not as widely misrepresented or as caricatured as Thomas, but it’s good to clarify his record. Thomas was the doubter. Peter was the actor.
Peter was ‘rash and brash’, the one who could always be counted on to be impulsive and impetuous. From wanting a full body bath from Jesus instead of a foot washing at their last meal together on Maundy Thursday, to striding out of the garden at Jesus’ arrest and cutting off the ear of the Roman guard, Malchus, to getting dressed and jumping in the water first to reach Jesus on the shore; yes, well, we’ve come to expect such behavior from Peter. He wore his emotions on his sleeve.
Some scholars believe that the book of John originally ended with chapter 20. “Many other signs” are mentioned that Jesus did in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. This reference is open-ended. Does “many other signs” refer to what is recorded in a separate, other source from which John made key selections? Does it refer to miracles and healings recorded in other gospels? We’re not sure what signs John refers to that he has not chosen to write down, but we are sure of his purpose in the specific events that he did record. His purpose is that those who already believe may be strengthened in their faith, and that those who do not yet believe may come to belief.
So the camera is on Peter to carry the ball here, and to fulfill this purpose, knowingly or unknowingly.
Now, Peter decides to set his own agenda, to return to the Sea of Tiberias, and announces “I am going fishing.” He may well have been filled with mixed feelings of grief and relief, thinking, “What else is left for me but to go back to who I was and what I used to do?” And there is nothing wrong with that at all.
Being human is all we can ever be. Going fishing was about the most natural thing Peter could ever do. He needed food, and it was a normal and comforting thing to do.
(As I take my evening bike rides up the NCR trail now & then these days, I’ve been seeing lots more folks fishing along the Gunpowder than I’ve ever seen before… not a bad way to spend your time; connecting with the best of nature is a good thing for all of us right now.)
Peter was unprepared for what would happen when they got to the lake. He was the one who instigated the fishing expedition, but he had no idea what would happen there.
After an evening of fishing, they came up empty handed. Likely, that was not unusual.
Sometimes the fish just don’t bite. Sometimes the deal falls through. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want or expect.
We all know something about this these days, don’t we? We were expecting to be back to work by now; or to have the long-awaited baptism celebration, the wedding, the vacation, the family get together…. to live our normal lives. But it hasn’t happened, has it? It’s like we’re living in limbo; life on hold, with waiting as the one thing we all have in common. And some of us wait amidst circumstances more dire than others, with our hands mostly tied behind our backs, or so it seems.
I had a really good conversation about this earlier this week with one of my preaching buddies; Carlos Wilton. He knows something about dealing with delays, disappointments, and the faith and resiliency that it takes to see you through.
He is one of those pastors now affectionately dubbed ‘Disaster Pastors;” not that their work is a disaster, but the opposite… that they have walked with their congregations through disasters, literally, and now mentor other leaders going through tough times.
Carl served as Pastor of Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in southern NJ for 25 years. He was there in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy struck. You remember that. I remember when it was headed straight for Maryland, or so we thought; and instead of a hurricane we had blue skies and gentle breezes. It struck southern Jersey hard, with incredible wind damage and flooding. There was no electricity for a couple of weeks for many and the borough was in disrepair for a couple of years. The church served as a work center for lots of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance workgroups and as a community center as well.
Then and there Carl began to learn something of what those who have battled cancer call the ‘art of survivorship.’ His dealing with the after-effects of Sandy paid off personally, because in 2013 he himself was diagnosed with cancer. It was treatable, thank goodness, but still very hard news.
After dealing with the initial news, which can be devastating in and of itself, he began to get used to the ‘new normal.’ As he puts it now, when you’ve been through these sorts of things a few times, then the next disorienting experience becomes just a little easier, because you can say to yourself, “It felt disorienting last time, too, but then a new normal emerged – so, in the meantime, apply the best general principles you know to the new specifics of your situation.” (Carl is pretty analytical.)
There’s not an action plan, per se, he says. When most everything is unmanageable, the best we can do is manage ourselves and reach out with care to others, allowing God’s grace to fill the gaps. As he puts it, we just keep on rockin’ in the Ark, looking for the dove with the olive branch to come our way.” OK, we say, this is the way things are going to be for a while; things will return to a new normal eventually.”
I’ve learned a lot from Carl, for sure. At some point, sunrise will come again and a new dawn will arrive, as it did for Peter and the other disciples. They confronted a situation eerily similar to their lives before they met Jesus and he called them to walk with him. Now they were on their own again, unmoored from his care and guidance, or so they thought.
After what must have been an uncomfortable night’s sleep, hungry and anxious, a stranger inquired how they were doing. “No luck so far”- is all they could muster as a reply.
“Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some,” is the answer they hear. Without any apparent debate, they do as this stranger suggests, with greater results than they could have imagined. Something very strange is going on, indeed. Whether it was magic, or just good eyesight that the stranger had, seeing signs of fish flipping on the opposite side of their small fishing boat, the words he shares gives the disciples a new lease on life. And it’s John, the disciple with the keenest eyesight, who recognizes this stranger on the beach not to be a stranger at all, but Jesus.
True to form, Peter acts first. Too impetuous and impatient to wait to be rowed to shore, he’s in the water, swimming to Jesus, properly clothed to meet the Lord.
Jesus has prepared a warm meal for them already, and as much as the meal meant to them, Jesus’ presence must have meant so much more.
This is not the whole story of the passage and next week we’ll pick up where this leaves off. But this part of the story is sufficient in and of itself, especially for how we’re living these days, in these in-between times.
Jesus, like the Holy Spirit, is unpredictable and uncontrollable. The unpredictable Christ is spontaneous and sudden. He shows up in ways and at times least expected. But just because Jesus is out of sight, he is not out of mind. Christ appears in more ways than we could ever expect, from the recesses of our past to unknown times in the future.
The good news in this story is that the disciples are never completely abandoned in the grips of failure, even though it may look that way. At the deepest point of their discouragement, Jesus shows up as a stranger on the lakeshore.
John tells us that Jesus calls out to the disciples even though they don’t realize that it’s him. Jesus comes to the disciples, unbidden, seeking them out once again, bringing them nourishment.
Jesus’ purpose is to strengthen those with faith, that those who do not yet believe may come to belief.
It’s been said that, while we are fishing for results, Jesus is already cooking fish. The good news is that Jesus knows exactly what we are fishing for even when we don’t. Not only does Jesus already possess what his disciples are fishing for, but he is preparing it and invites them to receive it.
So for all of us for this next week ahead- (just one week at a time is enough for now), consider how & where you might let down your net. Where is it that you might find Jesus, hidden but waiting for you? Maybe it will be in cleaning out a closet, bringing to mind folks you haven’t been in touch with for a long time, but now have the time to call, email, or even write a letter. Maybe it will be making a casserole & a delivery for Manna House, or other food donations for the CARES pantry.
Through the sleepless nights you experience this week, unsettled at the uncertainty of the times, know that Jesus is alive and waiting for you to hear his voice, to make your response, and be heartily welcome to join with him once more.
Jesus will show up in your life, and just as he told Peter, he will tell us all, “I believe in you. I know who you are and I love you. And yes, you are exactly the disciple I need, the disciple the world needs, to share my love with the world.” Amen